By Ruth Zamoyta
“Free” has triumphed. In the digital age, “free” doesn’t mean “not really free” (as in “the free lunch”), but it means no-strings-attached, honest, bona-fide gratis. People expect many intangible things to be free: free wireless (Starbucks), free mail (Gmail), free phone service (Skype), free news (Huffington Post), free music (Spotify), free information (Wikipedia), even free operating systems (Linux). And the concept of “free” (as well as the concept of “mass media”) started almost 100 years ago with the advent of radio broadcasting.
NPR’s core competency is not news or radio broadcasting. It is currently “free mass enlightenment.” And in the economy-of-free, that core competency is working miracles. Listener numbers are soaring while traditional news sources flounder. Over the past decade, NPR’s audience has grown over 38% whereas the audience for newspapers declined by more than 26% nightly news by 27%, and commercial radio news by 21%.
With non-operating assets having risen by $4.6 million last year, the future may seem bright for NPR. But in the world of rapidly changing technology and business models, NPR shouldn’t rest on its laurels. Free mass enlightenment is no longer the exclusive domain of NPR and competition is attacking on both the news and music fronts. NPR needs to redefine its core competency, double its listenership, double brand loyalty (both factors of communications) and start thinking of brand extensions.
As a radio station network, NPR collaborates more than it competes with the two other public radio networks, American Public Media (the largest) and Public Radio International. The real competition comes from other sources. As a news outlet, NPR competes with a variety of media from established newspapers to industry magazines—most of whom now offer their content free of charge. Competition is also coming from CDs and MP3s as well as from self-curated radioesque services like Spotify, Pandora, and I Heart Radio.
In my paper, I identify the target audience as “conspicuously informed Americans” and recommend that NPR redefine its core competency as “we the people.” NPR creates and disseminates human-interest stories, and diverse forms of music—the universal art. NPR has always had the good of the people foremost in mind—not profits or favor. It celebrates the peoples’ achievements—both the mighty leaders and the common man. It educates the people and listens to them. It showcases the underdog and makes life more rewarding for people who see beauty in the ideas, good works, and artistic creations of other people.
NPR should send messages of community and connection to conspicuously informed Americans—“Put the U in Public”—and it should change its logo from a radio tower with its one-way communication, to silhouettes of people engaging in conversation. I offer specific tactics that NPR can deploy in order to grow and engage its community and increase connectivity, such as increasing use of its physical space, launching an equivalent of TED talks, enabling cross-promotion between news and music, encouraging cross-promotion between NPR and affiliate organizations, giving away earbuds instead of umbrellas to donors, and launching brand extensions such as travel packages, online degrees, and business models for artistic organizations.